Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

“We are what we are before God and nothing more.”
—St. Anthony of Padua

In an interview given to The Tablet in 1989, two years before he died, Graham Greene described himself as “a Catholic agnostic” and added that there were two things keeping him from losing his faith altogether. The first was the moment in the Fourth Gospel when Peter and John ran to the tomb: “It just seems to me to be first-hand reportage, and I can’t help believing it . . . I know that St. Mark is supposed to be the earliest gospel, but there’s just the possibility of St. John’s Gospel having been written by a very old man, who never calls himself by name, or says ‘I,’ but does describe this almost funny race, which strikes me as true.”

The second was Padre Pio, whom Greene met and whose photograph he then carried in his wallet for the rest of his life. The encounter with Pio seems to have happened in the late 1940s, though the date is uncertain. Greene discussed the incident openly only forty years later, with his biographer Norman Sherry, and in correspondence with the Newsweek journalist Kenneth Woodward.

The meeting, he said, had been arranged by an Italian aristocrat. Greene had driven to the remote and mountainous town of San Giovanni Rotondo in southeast Italy with Catherine Walston, the wife of a future Labour member of Parliament, with whom he was having an affair. Their adultery constituted a mortal sin, priestly absolution for which would be valid only if they intended to stop sleeping with each other. By the time of the visit, Padre Pio was every bit as famous as Graham Greene, but he was himself out of favor with Vatican authorities. Greene had been assured by a monsignor in Rome that Pio was a “village saint” and a “fraud.” This was hardly likely to put Greene off; he had often depicted rogue and morally complicated priests in his fiction. Nonetheless, Pio’s reputation had been built not only on miraculous answers to prayer, but also on the confessional in which he sat for hours on end, and which drew everyone from pious locals to film stars. He was known to “read souls” and occasionally kick impostors out of the church.

By the time of Greene’s visit, Pio’s fame rested above all on the stigmata, the wounds of Christ he was said to have borne for decades; he was the first recorded male Catholic stigmatist since St. Francis of Assisi. Authorities in Rome suspected the wounds were self-inflicted, and by the time of Greene’s visit, Pio had been suspended from saying Mass in public until a further round of medical and psychological assessments had been conducted. This meant that Greene and Walston had to get up at five o’clock to watch Pio celebrate a private Mass in a side chapel of the friary church, Greene standing “about six feet away from him.” 

Throughout the Mass, said Greene, “he tried to hide the stigmata by pulling his sleeves halfway down his hands, but of course they kept on slipping. He was presumably not allowed to wear gloves.” Greene said that he saw the blood “start up, dry, and then start up again, on his hands and feet.” Greene and Walston left straight after the Mass, passing up an arrangement to meet Pio in person: “I didn’t want to change my life by meeting a saint.” Neither, he said, did Walston. After the incident, Greene stopped receiving the sacraments, though he still sometimes attended Mass. This state of affairs continued for four decades, until he began to receive confession and communion from a Spanish priest friend with whom he would sometimes travel. It was during this period that he described himself to The Tablet as “a Catholic agnostic.” To another interviewer he described himself as “a Catholic atheist.”

Since he was one of the most famous Catholics in Europe, the state of Greene’s faith had been a matter of scrutiny for the press for some time. Probed on his agnosticism by The Tablet, he distinguished between belief, which he said he had lost, and faith, which he said he still had. Beneath the bravado he brought to such interviews appeared to lie genuine conflict. During one conversation about faith, records his biographer, his voice “was filled with fervent emotion . . . It was, in all my interviews, the most disturbing.” Greene had known depression for most of his life, and wretched guilt, for he was a lifelong philanderer, and continued to be after Walston’s death from cancer. When his nephew described Greene’s “eyes that had seen the inside of a thousand brothels,” it was not a metaphor and not necessarily an exaggeration. “If I have a soul at all,” Greene once wrote to his wife, “it is a small, dirty beast.” Precisely what he expected from his encounter with Pio is hard to imagine, but the small Capuchin church where he and Walston stood that morning is almost unchanged, and roped off—like an old phone box—stands the famous confessional they both chose not to enter.

What the British media branded “New Atheism” in the 2000s has not really survived the death of Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins’s mauling by Terry Eagleton in the London Review of Books. There are only so many Sam Harris videos you can watch. But there are plenty of signs of a “New Agnosticism,” stranger in nature since the line between atheism and agnosticism has always been hard to draw, and because the phenomenon of agnosticism is not straightforward—as Greene showed. Turning away from faith after seeing what you believe to be a holy miracle is not a dictionary understanding of the term. Eagleton describes himself as an atheist but was friends with the late Dominican Herbert McCabe and, like fellow celebrity Marxist Slavoj Žižek, has been happy to defend Christian culture against liberalism. He has written that he thinks there is scope for being a Marxist Christian. Another prominent Marxist philosopher, Alain Badiou, has written a book about St. Paul. They all claim to be nonbelievers, but this is not cultural atheism as we once knew it.

More explicit cultural agnosticism is seen in the “Nones” who dominate religious surveys, and in doublespeak bureaucratic phrases such as “faith-neutral.” British politicians since David Cameron increasingly portray themselves as affable agnostics—Boris Johnson once told an interviewer that his faith was like a car radio going in and out of signal—while the mainstream British media seem happy to present agnosticism as a grown-up approach to religion. Their attitude is exemplified by a 2011 BBC radio documentary about faith titled In Doubt We Trust. In a rare moment of principle, I declined an invitation to participate in that show, since I trusted neither religious doubt nor the editorial intentions of whoever had commissioned such a title.

Conservative pundits like Jordan Peterson and David Berlinski seem happy to identify as agnostic. Able to offer acute diagnoses of the ills besetting secular culture, they are less sure on the matter of God, but that uncertainty has proved creative territory for them, maybe because there are so many agnostics out there. Berlinski, a mathematician, physicist, and philosopher, describes himself as “a secular Jew” who doesn’t know whether God exists but knows enough to know that you can’t say he doesn’t. His book The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions notes the limits of what science offers society: “A man asking why his days are short and full of suffering is not disposed to turn to algebraic quantum field theory for the answer.” Peterson offers psychological exegeses of the Bible, speaks warmly of prayer and faith, and maintains a position of agnosticism on the following basis: Who am I to say whether God exists?

At moments in this culture war, it can seem that anyone who takes a stand against what is called “wokeness” is imbued with a religious aura, if only by association. This may be because traditional religion is so consistently at odds with wokeness, but conservative Christianity in particular seems to have attained fresh appeal among cultural dissidents. That it has should not surprise anyone who is aware of the Catholic Church’s role as a rallying point in the struggle against the Soviet regime in Poland, where lapsed Catholics and even atheists came to see the Church as the only institution capable of staging effective resistance against a political system that all could see was ideologically, politically, and economically dysfunctional. “Solidarity” was not just a rebel slogan but a stated principle of Catholic social doctrine, brought to life in those heady days. If such solidarity were ever to emerge in the West, then Peterson’s question would need answering, since “Who am I to say whether God exists?” carries the suggestion that people of faith lack humility. Since humility is meant to be a mark of Christian thinking, the suggestion must be dealt with at the pass.

Could one call Padre Pio arrogant? Above the Capuchin’s cell door is a quotation, written on a card that has yellowed, since (like the confessional downstairs) everything has been left as it was in his lifetime. It reads “La croce è sempre pronta e ti aspetta ovunque” and is from The Imitation of Christ: “The Cross always stands ready and everywhere awaits you.” Properly lived, says this book so loved by John Wesley that he made his own translation, Christian faith does not mean floating around a foot off the ground, or thinking that you are better than everyone else; rather, it means being consumed with compassion and awareness of your imperfection—and, at times, enduring persecution. In his 2021 conversation with Bishop Robert Barron, Peterson seems so intuitively aware of this cost that his emotion sits strangely with his more measured objection later in the interview to the Church’s insistence that Christ’s Resurrection is not a metaphor but a historical fact. What drives his agnosticism? Is it rational objection or humility? Or fear?

Another agnostic, Ludwig Wittgenstein, once wrote of the Christian faith: “It could say something to me, only if I lived completely differently.” He was not a man for whom lukewarm faith would ever be an option, and for him the moral requirements were particularly daunting. Yet he also saw the foolishness of staying where he was, spiritually speaking. Acclaimed as a genius by 1930s England, he wrote tersely in his notebook: “Amongst Jews, ‘genius’ is found only in the holy man.” In Christian doctrine, holiness is a gift of God, and not easy to keep. The difficulty with the Holy Spirit is precisely his holiness. In 1919, aged thirty-one, Pio wrote to his spiritual director: “In the immensity of his strength, infinite love has at last overcome my hardheartedness. [He] keeps pouring himself completely into the small vessel of this creature and I suffer an unspeakable martyrdom because of my inability to bear the weight of this immense Love.” That was the sanctification Wittgenstein kept backing away from, the sanctification almost all professing Christians back away from, with excuses that really amount to agnosticisms of our own. 

Nor was this breakthrough the end of it for Pio. It was instead the point at which his self-denial, study, and prayer came into their own, as he fought not to squander the gift he had been given. Like other monks and nuns of his and earlier days, Pio mortified himself, and his knotted leather “discipline” sits in one of the display cases in the friary. Near it, black-and-white photographs show him among pilgrims in the piazza outside, the latter looking happy and relaxed, Pio always focused, mostly stern, always on duty. Only with his fellow friars does he look relaxed, but his letters speak of the most intense battles in his cell, of being thrown across the floor by demons. So many saints’ lives (Bede’s Life of St. Cuthbert, Athanasius’s Life of St. Anthony, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s The Story of a Soul come to mind) tell the same story, since every saint’s life is really a Passion. Thérèse speaks of an “unfelt joy.” For her, as for Pio, suffering was real and sought after, and included temptations against the faith. But, for both, doubt was a ruse of the devil—clouds obscuring the sun, rather than the absence of the sun—and a chance to show one’s love for Christ without any consolation. For such souls, faith was the air they breathed, the fabric of their lives, “the cross that everywhere awaits you.” As the marvelous—and far from melancholic—St. Teresa of Ávila put it, “suffering is love and love suffering.”

For those agnostics who sense the truth and depth of this algebra, “assent” is all the more difficult. But withholding assent also becomes difficult, since a lack of faith may become a suffering in itself. For those who begin to fall in love with Christ, this can be a far worse torture, as the sense of mystery shades into mere confusion. On the Church’s side, dealing with such seekers is very different from dealing with atheists, and in many ways it is more demanding. All-out attacks by atheists are hard but pruning for us, as Christopher Hitchens sometimes seemed to realize. (Interviewed once by a Unitarian who told him that she herself didn’t believe half the Bible and that he should attack “fundamentalists” rather than Christians as a whole, he replied: “I would say that if you don’t believe that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and Messiah, and that he rose again from the dead and by his sacrifice our sins are forgiven, you’re really not in any meaningful sense a Christian.”) Cultural agnosticism is dangerous because it resonates with high levels of agnosticism within the Western Church. In her book Another Gospel?, Alisa Childers recalls being invited to join a group in her congregation whom her pastor considered capable of thinking “outside the box.” The meetings began with his describing himself as a “hopeful agnostic” and proceeding to “deconstruct” traditional Christian morality and beliefs, including in the Resurrection.

Childers, a worship singer at the church, was as disturbed by the willingness of the others in the group to go along with the pastor as she was by what the pastor was saying. After a few weeks, she left. What makes her book excellent is her account of the rehabilitation of her faith through her reading of Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Athanasius, as well as post-Critical Bible scholars such as N. T. Wright and Gary Habermas, who deploy all the rigors of contemporary scholarship within what Benedict XVI (in his exhortation Verbum Domini) calls “a hermeneutic of faith.”

My own cultural agnosticism was dissolved in another way. I came back to faith in the early 2000s while working as a freelance writer in Africa, where a growing love for township gospel music had prompted me to visit several remote and vibrant churches. What doubts I had (and there were habits I was reluctant to give up) were assaulted by the conviction and praise I encountered. (I gave a fuller account of my conversion in The Song of Ascents.) Back in England, my rekindled faith miraculously surviving suburbia, I eventually read John Paul II’s encyclical Centesimus Annus, which, as far back as 1991, warned of “a tendency to claim that agnosticism and sceptical relativism are the philosophy and the basic attitude which correspond to democratic forms of political life.” The encyclical predicted that “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.”

Three decades on, our agnostic democracies are hardly value-neutral. They almost never cease to establish and broadcast values, but these “values” are often meaningless slogans, chaotic and of uncertain logic. They cannot be grounded on “natural law,” since natural law implies a Creator, or at least some kind of permanent Order. So where do they come from? Ethics without metaphysical foundations are about as helpful as bumper stickers. The idea of progress, that we are evolving into a better society or even a better species, raises as many questions as it answers. Who gets to steer this ship of progress? Diversity (the etymology of which suggests moving apart, as is clearer in words like “divorce” and “division”) can hardly serve as a principle of unity. In the vacuum created by such values, hordes of young people consume conspiracy theories and believe that society is being manipulated by evil forces. Who can blame them? Agnostic pundits decry the evil manipulation of culture constantly, without being confident that metaphysical evil exists. Their diagnoses are thus spiritually grim, sharp but without hope. Christianity, by contrast, is a coherent conspiracy theory with a happy ending.

Pilgrimages are a rest amid such chaos. On the hill above Padre Pio’s old church, I join two Australians and an American as they walk the Stations of the Cross in the February snow. The piazza below us is frozen and deserted but, as we follow the stations round and up the hill, our minds are in Jerusalem two thousand years ago. He was dragged through the streets for us: a truth easy to forget in the middle of a culture war. After his imprisonment in 1950s Poland, Cardinal Wyszyński wrote in his diary that he realized “how tiny my Jesus had become” during the struggle against atheist Soviet authorities: “It is much easier to be a prisoner of the Church defending its rights than a prisoner of Christ defending His rights to my soul.” On being released, Wyszyński stopped arguing with the authorities and began resisting with acts of public devotion and liturgy. Pope John Paul II’s epochal Mass in a packed Warsaw square in June 1979 (“Man cannot be fully understood without Christ”) was the fruit of that strategy, and Wyszyński was there to witness it.

We cannot accept uncritically the opinions of everyone who resists the same things we resist, or we will risk forging alliances of hate. The Church fights in a different way, Christ’s way, and he was a Holy Victim, as were the saints who followed him, relentless critics of “crooked generations” all of them. They triumphed through their willingness to love, suffer, forgive, and stubbornly persist. Like the intellectuals in Soviet Europe who retrained as plumbers and housepainters rather than compromise with a lie, we must accept the fact that integrity requires sacrifice. Truth prevails against confusion and attacks, but the Church, founded by the Crucified One, prevails by means of greater faith, not slicker communication initiatives.

The more Padre Pio suffered, the more the world sought his counsel. In San Giovanni, this mystic peasant who had grown up in a one-room cottage stood on the reality of the gospel and simply refused to lie about it. Like Thérèse, he knew the Tradition well enough to expect to suffer. Far from making either of them miserable, this expectation freed them from shock and complaint, allowing them to endure with love. We must steer and accompany agnostics toward such love. I can think of no better critique of settled agnosticism than Joseph Ratzinger provides in his Introduction to Christianity: Man “cannot ask and exist as a mere observer. He who tries to be a mere observer experiences nothing.” We must offer “the experiment that we call faith. Only by entering does one experience; only by cooperating in the experiment does one ask at all; and only he who asks receives an answer.”

The number of miracles associated with Padre Pio eventually overcame suspicion of him in the Vatican. A photograph of him standing with a group of American airmen in the 1940s testifies to one of the more famous of them. The airmen had been ordered to bomb the military installation in San Giovanni during World War II, but their flight reports spoke of a human figure in the sky turning them away. When their disbelieving commander flew there himself, he saw the same figure and turned back. The general and some pilots later visited the town and recognized Pio as the figure. As Graham Greene showed, miracles do not always lead to deeper conversion, but they can serve as a unique witness, even when they are only read about, for those who find themselves on the edge of faith. Even more so can the holiness of saints. 

The anonymous fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing assures us that the very angels standing before God do not understand the fullness of his glory, so we should not worry too much about not understanding him here on earth. With love, he says, and only with love, can we even begin to know him. Possessing whatever I do of this love, I still do not know him very well (else I would not get so distracted). But I do love him, and if I ever suffer for him, it will be because of that love, not because I have figured anything out. In fact, no longer trying to figure God out is one of the unexpected reliefs of becoming Christian. God is a mystery we accept, not because we are uncertain whether he exists, but because he surpasses our understanding. Humility, intellectual or otherwise, should never be conceded as high ground to the agnostics. To Peterson’s question “Who am I to say whether God exists?” we should reply: “You are a child of God and have every right and reason to believe that he exists.”

Of course, the last three words of “Who am I to say whether God exists?” are not the only question contained in that locution. For “Who am I?” is also a question, and one the Enlightenment has never managed to answer. What is our final purpose? Why are human beings so different from other animals? Who are we?

The Church has an answer: Man is a rational, social being, drawn to the transcendent, finding his fulfillment in self-giving. Made in the image of God, he is designed through Christ to share God’s nature, and in consequence every single human being has an inherent, sacred dignity, however marred by sin or misfortune. The Church has never claimed to know everything, or else she would not value faith and hope so highly, but she knows where she is going.

The way is not easy. Some of Christ’s Passion will become ours if we follow his Word closely enough, but even suffering looks different when we can ask with St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “Quid hoc ad aeternitatem?”: What is this in relation to eternity? The debates about Jesus Christ have changed little in twenty centuries. Who is he? Is he really the Son of God? The Church begins with Mary’s Yes, and a Yes rather than a Maybe is still the entry requirement, easier for a young child to utter than an adult, as Jesus said it would be. Nonetheless, if you get close enough to the edge of saying it, you could find God pushing you off, and catching you on the other side, where gratitude makes children of us all.

Tom Hiney is the author of The Song of Ascents: Lives of Rage and Stillness.

Image by Mike Steele licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.
Read without Limits.
Stacked Mgazines